Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's recent review of Jesus & Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas
Back then, even as a wreck of a man, people would still pay to see him, the younger son in a legendary acting dynasty, even if he was just a shadow of his former self in 1942, shortly before his death at the age of 60. This is the premise of William Luce's (nearly) one-man play, Barrymore from 1996. And the Barrymore luck, of being so watchable, is doubled in this St. Louis Actors' Studio production, as actor John Contini reprises the role of the swaggering, staggering icon at The Gaslight Theater.
William Luce's best-known play is The Belle of Amherst, a one-person show about Emily Dickinson. But in Barrymore, the narrative is sort of reversed: the great tapestry of an artist's brilliance and of an artist's longing, and of course all the psychological poetry, comes from the opposite end of a career. Erin Kelley directs, highlighting the twinkle in his eye and the flicker of his fame, revoked. The action takes place after his film career has fizzled out, and after all four of his wives have left him, in the course of a life on stage and in film.
Mr. Contini braves it all as if he were both a great detective at the end of a chilling whodunnit as well as the half-comic killer himself. The show has a slight insane asylum feel to it, and indeed the matinee idol has been in and out of more than one sanitarium, for alcohol abuse.
But I'm still trying to decide if this Barrymore relies more palpably on his thrilling character voice, with its trilled "R's" (even some of his exhalations of breath seem to have ruffles). Or is it about the heroic unfurling of his head and neck and hands, over the course of 85 minutes on stage (plus an intermission)? On top of all that, the night I went, just as the broken-down legend was rising to his full height on stage one last time, The Gaslight Theater's old furnace suddenly decided to rumble to life as well–as if the renewed force of his personality had taken command of the building itself.
In 1999, Mr. Contini played Shylock, maddened by prejudice, in a production of The Merchant of Venice at the Grandel Theatre, which I had a small supporting role in. He seemed completely affable out of character, in rehearsals, but horrifying in the big trial scene, his dark eyes ablaze.
Here, Alexander Huber plays Barrymore's long-suffering prompter (almost entirely off-stage), patiently coaxing the shambling legend to walk through the highlights of Richard III the night before a show. Memorization shatters again and again, like the glass in a mirror. And memories intrude, of embarrassing interactions or of clashes with movie directors who can't be bothered with his high style (and high maintenance) any longer. But there are also fond recollections of W.C. Fields' wit, along with a crazy range of family stories. A combat sword flashes, and sex jokes clatter down onto the boards around him, like Christmas tree ornaments fallen from a great height.
Is it funny? Ruefully. By 1942, the movie studios and the critics had thrown up their hands at his squandered genius. And yet, everything that made us want to bask in his glory is re-created here in great detail. Mr. Contini often gives his stagey Ozymandias a kind of besieged elegance. And to have lived so many lives almost seems like a kind of godliness itself.
But to steal that power, like Prometheus, had finally come at a terrible cost.
Barrymore, produced by St. Louis Actors' Studio, runs through December 10, 2023, at The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Avenue, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information please visit stlas.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association